Congress Thursday narrowly approved an aviation spending bill that could increase the number of privately run air traffic control towers. The 211-207 vote, mostly along party lines, brings closer to resolution a rancorous dispute over whether the Federal Aviation Administration should be able to privatize air traffic control towers and jobs.
“Its been a struggle to get here,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee.
The four-year, $60 billion spending bill, which is strongly backed by the Bush administration, could face a difficult battle in the Senate, where a filibuster is threatened.
Democrats are resisting turning government towers over to private contractors, saying they save money through understaffing and are not as closely monitored by the FAA.
“From corporate executives to average citizens, no one wants a rent-a-controller at the tower,” said Rep. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat whose district includes Newark Liberty International Airport.
Republicans said the administration should be allowed to cut costs by expanding a system that has worked well so far, but that it has no intention of further privatizing the air traffic control system.
“We advocate no change — nada, none, zip,” Mica said.
White House opposition to a ban on privatization revives a conflict that took place between controllers and President Reagan 22 years ago. Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers on grounds they violated a national security provision in their contract by striking.
Shortly afterward, the FAA began contracting for air traffic control at about 60 small airports. Now, 219 smaller U.S. airports with towers have contract air controllers, out of a total of 484 airports with towers.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, representing 15,600 controllers, says it is concerned that the administration’s ultimate goal is to privatize all controllers, despite assurances to the contrary. The union spent millions on an ad campaign to defeat a version of the aviation spending bill that didn’t forbid privatization.
In the Senate, Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., threatened to filibuster if the bill doesn’t forbid privatizing air traffic controllers.
“I don’t want to go home on an airplane that isn’t as safe as it can be,” Lautenberg said.
In the original versions, both the House and Senate voted to ban the privatization of controller jobs. But when it came time to reconcile the two versions, the White House insisted on limiting the ban to four years and including a list of 69 towers eligible to be run by private contractors.
However, Republicans didn’t have the votes to pass that version.
A new version removes the list, but Democrats were upset they were left out of negotiations.
“It’s outrageous,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “The Republicans have burned the book on rules.”
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said President Bush would sign the bill proposed by Republican lawmakers.
The bill includes $500 million for airports to install security equipment, as well as a new requirement that some federally subsidized rural airports contribute 10 percent of the costs, an unpopular measure among members of Congress representing those airports.